It’s been a gripping Rugby World Cup, even if the draw was so badly bent out of shape that the archaic rules which decided it are now set to change.
Despite that, we still have the two historically strongest rugby nations on the planet squaring off in the final when New Zealand faces South Africa in Paris at 6am (AEDT) on Sunday.
They’ve won the past four World Cups – about to be five – but the fierce rivals have only once met in the final, when the Springboks won an epic at the iconic 1995 tournament.
The All Blacks are slight favourites heading into the 2023 decider that will determine who becomes the first country to win four Rugby World Cups.
The final shapes as a battle of scintillating attack against ruthless defence – each side capable of both – and also presents a potential changing of the guard in more ways than one.
So what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? We’ll find out on Sunday.
Here foxsports.com.au looks at all the biggest talking points out of the Rugby World Cup ahead of the final between New Zealand and South Africa.
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CLASH OF STYLES: WIN BORING OR LOSE ENTERTAINING?
The All Blacks are synonymous with playing entertaining and free-flowing rugby, while the Springboks only care about one thing – winning.
South Africa have scored just two tries in their three World Cup final appearances, all of which they won. In saying that, they can also rack up a score and just two months ago handed New Zealand their biggest loss in history with a 35-7 thumping.
Despite this, the Kiwis will start the final in Paris as favourites.
Earlier in the tournament there was a war of words between the countries earlier when the Springboks were accused of playing “boring” rugby.
New Zealand coach Ian Foster compared his side’s 96-17 win over Italy in the group stages with South Africa’s 13-8 loss to Ireland.
“If you look at the South Africa-Ireland game, it was a different game of rugby. The ball was in play for 27 minutes throughout the whole game,” Foster said.
“It was a very stop-start game, very physical, very combative. You saw a different spectacle tonight (New Zealand v Italy) and at some point the world has got to decide which game it would rather watch.”
The inflammatory remarks triggered a response from Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus, who dropped this zinger in between a sandwich of compliments for Foster.
“I think two minutes more ball in play and an epic battle between Ireland and Boks is the game I would rather watch,” Erasmus said.
However, the Boks’ bruising style could catch up to them on Sunday following a pair of gruelling one-point victories to get into the final.
They edged out host nation France in the quarters before surviving a major scare in the semis against England.
New Zealand were made to work hard for a gripping 28-24 win over Ireland in the quarters, but their 44-6 win over Argentina in the semis was a glorified training run.
Whoever wins on Sunday, we can likely expect fireworks at full-time from one of the coaches with the age old final word – “I told you our style was best”.
IS THIS THE ALL BLACKS’ LAST STAND?
New Zealand has been so dominant in their decorated history that they’ve often been considered not just the best rugby team in the world, but the best sports team in the world.
However, you only had to look at their reaction after they ousted Ireland in the quarterfinals to recognise this – the All Blacks’ aura isn’t what it was and the players know it.
On the eve of this World Cup, New Zealand was handed its biggest defeat in history when they were spanked 35-7 by South Africa.
A few weeks later they were thoroughly outplayed again, this time by France who prevailed 27-13 in the World Cup opener.
By the time New Zealand faced Ireland in the quarters, they were underdogs at that stage of the tournament for the first time in history.
Yes, they found a way to make a record fifth World Cup final but the peloton is closing the gap on the most successful rugby nation of all time at a rate of knots.
The All Blacks could easily be back in the pack, surrounded by their European rivals, by the time the 2027 World Cup rolls around.
New Zealand’s once unfathomable winning record has been sliding since South African teams left Super Rugby for the northern hemisphere in 2020.
It meant the New Zealanders were no longer playing in the world’s best domestic competition and by 2022 the All Blacks had lost to Ireland and Argentina for the first time in history.
NZR officials were so concerned that they announced in March coach Ian Foster would step down after the World Cup to be replaced by Scott Robertson.
Foster now faces the prospect of becoming the first coach since South Africa’s Jake White in 2007 to be shown the door after delivering his country a World Cup.
ARE SOUTH AFRICA THE MOST ROUNDED TEAM?
Since 2020, the Springboks have enjoyed the best of both worlds – literally – and as a result they’re better prepared than any country for World Cup success.
South Africa was already planning on pulling its teams out of Super Rugby before the Covid pandemic brought those plans forward in 2020.
Instead of their teams flying to Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, they headed north to play in Europe in the same time zone.
But, the Springboks kept playing Tests against their traditional southern hemisphere rivals.
So in one part of the world, they would square off in the Rugby Championship against the best southern hemisphere nations in typically free-flowing contests.
Then in another part of the world, they would play in the northern hemisphere’s domestic competitions where the focus is on territory and the set piece.
It meant by the time the Springboks’ World Cup title defence began this year that they’d seen just about everything an opposition side could throw at them.
The proof is in the pudding, South Africa are the reigning world champions and head into the final on Sunday as the No. 1 ranked team in the world having lost just two games this year.
If they can clinch back-to-back William Webb Ellis trophies like New Zealand did in 2011 and 2015 then South Africa will have officially replaced them as world rugby’s powerhouse nation.
IS CHANGE COMING… OR DOES THE CREME DE LA CREME REMAIN IN THE SOUTH?
There’s been 10 World Cups since the inaugural tournament in 1987 and nine have been won by New Zealand, South Africa or Australia.
The northern hemisphere’s lone triumph came in 2003 when Johnny Wilkinson’s non-preferred right boot crushed Australian hearts in extra time.
In fact, England and France are the only northern hemisphere countries to have even contested a World Cup final.
But is there change coming?
This tournament was just a few subjective refereeing decisions away from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia all being eliminated before the semis.
Yes, Ireland still haven’t progressed to a World Cup semi-final. But before their heartbreaking 28-24 loss to the All Blacks in the quarterfinals, they were ranked the No. 1 side in the world following 17 straight victories.
France were tournament favourites all year before they fell just short against the Springboks in the quarterfinals 29-28 in a seesawing contest.
England took one of their weakest World Cup squads ever to the semis, while Wales thumped Australia 40-6 in the group stages in what marked a record win.
SANZAAR nations have contested every World Cup final and this year three of the four made the semis, with Argentina charging in for the second time.
But the smart money says winter is coming for SANZAAR, and it’s coming from the north.
DRAW FIASCO CONSIGNED TO HISTORY
Everyone knows that at this World Cup the quarters were really the semis and the semi were really the quarters – and all thanks to a comically bad administrative decision.
World Rugby was left with egg on its face over the decision to create the 2023 pool groups based on world rankings from December 2020.
It meant when the tournament kicked off almost three years later, three of the world’s top-five ranked nations found themselves in the same pool.
Ireland, South Africa and Scotland all met in the group stages and it was the Scots sent home early.
But that’s all set to change with World Rugby confirming this month they will draw the 2027 pools as late as possible, with January 2026 earmarked.
– with Sobo Analytics
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